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Hive mind: Student activism’s jargon epidemic

I saw a poster that caught my eye the other day. Unfortunately, I forget what it was for, but I remember that it was a political event of some sort that struck me as interesting. Then, I did a double-take – the word “radical” was on the poster at least three times, in big print. I’m pretty sure at least one of the phrases “systems of oppresion,” “intersections,” and “empowerment” was also on there. I immediately took a brief and unexpected sojourn to first year, when I had stared at some similar poster for a demo with the word “radical” in it. I didn’t go to the event. I wasn’t sure what the hell “radical” meant, but it sounded scary, and I wasn’t sure I would be welcome. My favourite subject in school was math, and my spare time was spent reading science fiction, not Foucault. Even coming from a family of academics in the humanities and social sciences, I was far from a political encyclopedia. While the words “oppression” and “solidarity” were definitely in my lexicon, I was not comfortable enough to ever use them authoritatively in any way or associate myself with them.

The “Accommodate This!” report (a response to the Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodation) is a good example of an awesome initiative that seeks to appeal to a broad range of people. However, looking at its poster and email callout from the perspective of someone who has never been involved with anything similar before (and consulting with a few friends), I am struck by a billion questions: “What on earth is a racialized community? Am I racialized? Am I marginalized? These people are so much more informed than I am – I don’t even know if I agree with them. Am I going to go to a workshop and sit around feeling like the stupid kid in the class who asks annoying questions?”

The Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE) is another great organization with a ludicrously unappealing name. While its move away from being a “Women’s Union” was carefully planned and reflects its current, more progressive mandate, the name leaves nothing but questions in most people’s heads. As far as I can tell, to many people it’s not even clear what it means, let alone how they should approach it: “What if someone seeking the services of the UGE doesn’t know if they’re ‘gender empowered’? What if they are not? Can they still go there? Should they only go there if they wish to have their gender empowered? Confusion OMGZ!”

The irony is that these events and organizations go out of their way to be accessible. They offer childcare, try to use only wheelchair-accessible spaces, and painstakingly word anything involving pronouns. Much as this is something many people might appreciate, sometimes the language of inclusivity is counterproductive in how convoluted it quickly becomes. As much as activist communities like to disparage the elitism of academia, the language they use effectively excludes anyone who isn’t a Cultural Studies hipster or friend of Cultural Studies hipsters.

The world of student politics isn’t faring much better in terms of linguistic accessibilty. While the language of consensus and self-identification might scare some away, Robert’s Rules and legalistic-style writing are really only helpful to those who did model UN in high school. Worst of all is the convergence of both worlds at a body such as the General Assembly (GA). Is it really that surprising that GAs don’t make quorum when many students walk into the room and simply have no idea what the hell is going on? From amending the amendment to the amendment-to-debater rhetoric, it’s easy to feel like you’ve stumbled into something as foreign as live-action role playing. While maybe someone headed toward law school might see learning parliamentary procedure as an integral part of their education, that’s not so much the case for a Science or Engineering kid.

The overuse of jargon within both of these communities contributes to the unfortunate fact that it’s hard to get new people involved. And that all these events tend to have more or less the same people in attendance. And that activist groups consist of people with really similar interests. And that eventually, because these circles are so tightly knit, the people in them lose touch with anyone who doesn’t speak their dialect.

Email your favorite campus activism-related buzzword to Floh Herra-Vega at